Everyone knows Harvard, Boston’s premier institution of higher learning, to be among the creme de la creme when it comes to Ivy League post-secondary education. Of course, nobody could have built that reputation overnight, and the school’s prestigious reputation is the product of hundreds of years of excellence. With an admittance rate of somewhere between 5% to 7%, it’s safe to say that the average collegiate doesn't even think of applying. To get into Harvard, you very nearly have to be born and bred for it — sure, there are a few exceptions to that rule, but admittance to Harvard takes an amount of dedication the like of which can only be seen in old World War II movies. Seriously, a congratulatory letter of admittance from a school like Harvard is a very hard thing to come by, and, given that they usually accept around 2,000 students per year, it’s the sort of thing of which most can only dream.
That said, if the staggering admission statistics haven’t deterred you, then perhaps some of their screening practices will. Harvard combs very thoroughly through their upwards of 40,000 yearly applicants to make sure they get their hands on the best of the best. In doing that, they ask and look for some pretty strange stuff. From an absolutely flawless academic record to a bizarre set of personal traits which require both obvious bravado and copious amounts of humility, here are 25 things Harvard looks for before admitting students.
25 Dress for Success
Harvard, like many schools of its ilk, requires all prospective students undergo an interview with one of their representatives to determine if they have what it takes to succeed in the academic climate stationed just a few miles west of Bunker Hill. Most won’t make the cut, but not for a lack of trying; in order to ace an interview of this caliber, you have to stick out against your competition, and some students have taken that a bit too far. From sporting muscle shirts and aviator sunglasses to designer Louboutin pumps, it may be best to be noticeable, just not overly so.
24 Making the Grade
As you might imagine, Harvard is very, very interested in admitting students with the highest test scores. So much so that it has been said that you could have the interviewing skills of someone like Richard Nixon or Kennedy, but, should your test results not be up to snuff, you still wouldn’t be given the time of day by the admission staff. Though a remarkable interview can never hurt, it seemingly can’t override an underwhelming academic yield. Harvard hopefuls beware — your SAT results will make or break your chances.
23 Gone in Four Years
Recent years have seen a trend in post-secondary scholars failing to graduate in the requisite four years it typically takes to earn a bachelor’s degree. With collegiate super seniors and six-year students slowly becoming the new norm, Harvard has become cautious when it comes to admitting students who seemingly won’t be able to graduate in a four-year time frame. Slackers or wayward students may hurt the institution's image, and the college does everything in its power to ensure that they don’t enroll too many academic burnouts.
22 Have What it Takes
Harvard’s website provides an outline for the type of student they are looking to admit, and they make mention of such a student’s possession of “appropriate personal qualities.” This is an ambiguous statement at best, but an ex-Harvard admissions counselor, who worked on a volunteer basis for many years with the school, stated in a 2015 tell-all that the college is really looking for students that can make it in such a competitive environment. With rumors of student sabotage and a campus-wide competitive attitude far from friendly, the school only amidst those who can swim in shark-infested waters.
21 Roll of the Dice
Though we would all like to believe that our hard work will pay off in the end, for Harvard applicants, that usually isn’t the case. Unfortunately, though many well-qualified, worthy candidates are admitted at the start of each new semester, others with similar characteristics and credentials are passed over. This is largely due to the fact that Harvard’s admissions process is, at times, relatively arbitrary, and it can be difficult to pick out the absolute best of the best from a sea of nearly identical applicants. Nothing against those who didn’t get in, but sometimes it really does just come down to luck.
20 Evaluation Over Advocation
While some schools, eager to sink their debt-based hooks into unwitting teenagers, will boast about all of the ways in which they may improve the lives of their students, Harvard requires that the students sell themselves. Sure, most college attendees had to write essays and fill out endless forms to get into schools, but Harvard really wants to hear what the student can do for the school. Admissions counselors are told to evaluate instead of advocate: in other words, Harvard doesn’t seem to admire charity cases.
It should come as no surprise that admittance to Harvard requires brains akin in proportion to those of blue whales, but the difficulty of achieving this level of academic prowess is nearly impossible. Successful applicants are typically required to be in top 95% of their class with sterling SAT scores and a stunning unweighted GPA. Barring that, prospective students will need to rely on an array of amazing extra curricular activities. Applicants essentially have to be cognizant of what will look good on a Harvard application from the moment their name appears on an elementary registry.
18 Be Yourself, Ditch the Memorized Speeches
Those who conduct admission interviews on behalf of Harvard University have heard the same song and watched the same dance time and time again; a memorized speech riddled with cliché maxims or paltry anecdotes. While those trained to prep students for such interviews will likely encourage such behavior, sometimes a break from the norm is best. Interviewers often look for stand-out qualities amongst a throng of high schoolers, and breaking from the norm may provide a necessary advantage. Full disclosure: I am not a Harvard grad — not even close — so take my advice with a very fine grain of salt.
17 Living Up to Your Potential
For a school as well-known as Harvard, reputation is everything: if the school suddenly starts churning out an endless mass of lack-luster job applicants, it’s status as a beacon of education and scholarly production will diminish, and it may fall to a group of competitors. With that in mind, Boston's premier post-secondary school keeps the potential of each prospective student in mind. Each applicant must bill themselves as the next prodigy of their field, as Harvard doesn’t tend to settle for anything less. The administration has a legacy to maintain, after all.
Are you a motivated self-starter? A leader of your fellow classmates? Such tired questions often adorn the covers of college entry pamphlets, each seeming just as trite as the last. As you may have guessed, Harvard is very interested in those with type-A personalities, though they take this to the nth degree: the school doesn’t seem to tolerate late bloomers, slackers, or underachievers in any form. They don’t just want self-starters, it is an absolute requirement. If you want to see your name on a Harvard acceptance letter, you had best start applying yourself.
15 Cookie Cutter
Harvard admissions seems to look for a bizarre set of paradoxical traits that very few actually posses, and that may be one of the reasons so few applicants actually make it to campus in the beginning of each semester. I’ve already mentioned that they only seek to admit students who will fit the intensive, competitive academic atmosphere, but they also seem to want kids who can simultaneously break that mould. You may have to look and act the part, but successful applicants will find a way to subtly infuse a hint of individuality into their initial impressions.
14 Ask Not What Harvard Can Do
I’ve already touched upon this concept, but Harvard really isn’t interested in enriching your life directly; we all know that Harvard graduates are essentially guaranteed to land a posh office job somewhere and to earn enough bragging rights to stand out against a thousand other resumes, but is the enhancement of a young student’s life really at the forefront of the Harvard experience. Well, that isn’t exactly an easy question to answer, but we do know that the university wants to be paid in merit just as much as in actual money.
13 Alumni for Life
Much like the trite mantra of just about every on-campus collegiate greek life association in existence, once you’re in Harvard, you’re in for life. What you do in those four years may be definite and lasting, but you associate with the school will almost certainly stay with you for the entirety of your professional life, and even long after that comes to a close. Boston’s famous university doesn’t want students who will cut and run once they’ve been handed a diploma; they want students who will one day become dedicated, passionate alumni.
12 Diamond in the Rough
You really, truly do have to be the absolute perfect candidate — and even then you might not get in. Harvard is traditionally held to rank second in applicant selectivity — second only to their Ivy League competitor Stanford University. Harvard will pick your record to pieces and meticulously mull over the smallest imperfections. In truth, applicants have to have been fortunate enough to have been born with intelligence, familial prestige, and a hardy dose of good luck. Even small blemishes like a few "A minuses" could be enough to disqualify a candidate.
11 Social Butterfly
As I have already mentioned, Harvard really doesn’t seem to take kindly to those who don't have specialties. While the school has a bit of a reputation for accepting a fair share of brilliant-yet-overly-geeky weirdos, the school’s admissions counsellors aren’t likely to recommend you if you make yourself out to be socially inept. Introverts and late bloomers don’t tend to fare well on campus and could pose a risk to Harvard’s image. As a result, if either of those qualities describe you, you would do well to not let that show in an interview.
10 It’s Not Who You Are, It’s Who You Know
We’ve all been told at some point that social connections are often more valuable than individual merit, and, while this seems like an archaic and unfair precedent, it’s an adage that oftentimes holds true. You are likely in for a desperate uphill battle if you don’t have any Harvard family legacy to mention on your application. Harvard tends to prioritize the children of alumni, so a dearth of social resources could prove to be an absolute nightmare for those looking to get into some of these schools. You might want to get into contact with that estranged uncle of yours who may or may not have gone to Harvard for a semester or two.
9 Keeping It Clean
In 2017, Harvard disinvited ten would-be students from attending classes following the discovery of a handful of offensive Facebook messages the applicants had sent. Though the nature of these messages likely isn’t appropriate for discussion, suffice to say that the universities prefers it’s academics to have spotless online profiles. Again, Harvard is obsessed with its image, and they will ignore any applicants who seem to have a propensity for causing trouble on the internet. For those looking to get into such a prestigious school, it’s in your best interest to leave any controversial messages unsent.
8 Straight to the Point
In an article titled “How NOT to Blow Your Harvard Interview,” John A. Byrne relays the idea that Harvard is very much interested in those who seem to have a definite, clear path set out for themselves. Most university aren’t all that interested in wayward souls, but Boston’s most prestigious university certainly doesn’t seem to want to listen to the ramblings of a high school student with no tangible plans for the future. It is sort of a shame, as those years can be particularly volatile for teens, but Harvard only accepts those who of considerable purpose and drive.
7 Your Life’s Story in Ten Words or Less
Harvard issues can be one of the most stressful events in a person’s life, though very few individuals will ever even make it to that point. Stress, as we all know, can bring out the worst in a person and cause an interview to quickly go down hill. However, Harvard hopefuls should be careful to keep their answers just short enough to satisfy the interviewer without dragging on for too long or providing one-word responses. “Don't know” is not an acceptable answer to the question of why you applied, but relaying your life’s story isn’t going to get you in, either.
6 Coasting Through High School
You may have spent your high school years seated comfortably at the top of your class, but that by no means guarantees you a spot on Harvard’s list of incoming freshmen. Harvard’s admissions board seems to place an emphasis on curricular rigor, as your straight "As" won’t mean much if you only earned them because you took three extra woodshop and gym classes. To stand out, applicants need to be able to show that they really applied themselves in high school and overcame the adversity of the most difficult classes available to them.
5 Essay Writing Skills
Just about every high-school student out there has some experience writing essays, and most college applications require at least a response to a few preliminary questions. While these are often pretty standard and incur pretty homogenous responses in return, Harvard’s admissions board really wants to see originality in the work of their applicants. Again, Harvard applicants really need to do their best to stand out, and that goes double for their admission essays; concise, well written essays which ignore played out, generic responses tend to work best. It can be nerve wracking work, but great essays lead to great impressions.
4 From the Heart
Most of the individuals conducting interviews with applicants on behalf of Harvard are unpaid volunteers. As a result, they probably don’t have a vested interest in which of the thousands of upper-class sons and daughters of millionaires actually get in. In fact, they must be so acutely aware of the rehearsed speeches and banal talking points floated across the table by these prospective students that they might be able to tell which interview prep coach to which they went for advice. This is a huge mistake, as applicants who rely on these sort of tactics are often ignored. Be yourself, but, more importantly, be original.
3 Jack of All Trades
I’ve brought it up previously, but the Harvard admissions board really does want the proverbial unicorns of the high school-student body when it comes to character. They want their students to be humble and have a sense of humility, while simultaneously condoning arrogance and pride. Confident and reticent, outgoing yet inward, a penchant for both literary arts and scientific pursuits: very few students fit these criteria, and it’s certainly not any easy set of characteristics to genuinely match. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, but Harvard really only wants those of us who don’t appear to have any notable flaws. Perhaps that’s why so few students are actually accepted.
2 Born and Raised
Though they probably wouldn’t choose to put it quite so bluntly, Harvard University really does want students who have been born and bred to attend their institution. Legacy is a major aspect of the application process, and, as I have said, those who don’t have any links to Harvard alumni will be hard pressed to actually find themselves enrolled come the start of the next semester. There is very much a Harvard way of being, which usually comes from the teachings of the school’s grads and their ilk. Typically, this is what the admissions board will be looking for: the student who lives and breathes the Harvard lifestyle.
1 Learn to Play Water Polo
No, seriously, it might sound crazy, but participating in at least one sport in high school can only make your pre-college resume look better. It doesn’t necessarily have to be water polo, though that sport is a bit of a meme among Ivy League schools. While I wouldn’t estimate that abstaining from athletic extracurricular activity in high school wouldn’t be a deal breaker for a Harvard interviewer, it shows a tremendous amount of dedication, and, well, who knows? Perhaps your water polo skills will go over well with some of the frumpy New Englanders who prefer those associated with the activity.
References: forbes.com, businessinsider.com, time.com